BRISTOL - “Somewhere, in a small town theatre, a group of actors are performing ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ (arguably Shakespeare’s worst play…!) but one of the cast members isn’t happy. His career is going nowhere, he’s sick of the show, and he wants out.”
That’s how the Bristol (U.K.) Shakespeare Festival describes a new play co-written by Bristol (Connecticut) native Mike Reiss and Nick Newlin. The play, appropriately titled “Shakespeare’s Worst,” will premier July 4 at the festival.
Reiss is a comedy writer best known for his work on “The Simpsons.” He said the idea for the play originated when he saw the phrase “Shakespeare’s worst” in an article and started thinking about it.
He settled on “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and turned it into what he calls “Mystery Science Theater 1600,” referring to the classic TV comedy in which the characters make jokes about bad movies.
“So this one character in the play knows it’s terrible and he just keeps up this steady stream of commentary to the audience about how bad the play is,” Reiss said.
With the help of his college friend Newlin, a Shakespeare scholar who has written condensed versions of the Bard’s plays, Reiss expanded what started as a random idea into a full length play.
“There are literally hundreds of Shakespeare festivals going on all over the world so I just sent it off blind to all of them,” he said. “The one that responded was Bristol, England, and the director is from the Royal Shakespeare Company.”
Reiss plans to see the show and talk with the audience afterward.
“It’s just so funny to me because I was very happy growing up in Bristol and my whole life I’ve been hearing about Bristol, England, and I’ve always been curious about it. The coincidence of it really tickles me, and actually the people in Bristol England are very tickled too,” he said.
“The funny thing is I sent it out to all these Shakespeare festivals, most of them didn’t respond at all, but I got a very indignant letter from the Hawaiian Shakespeare Festival that said ‘you know, it’s hard enough getting people to like Shakespeare without you writing a play like this.’ An indignant Hawaiian was something I didn’t know existed,” he joked.
“And literally right after that I got the acceptance from Bristol, England, and so I write back to the Hawaiian guy saying ‘they just announced they’re doing my play in England.’ He wrote back saying ‘well, that shows what I know,’” he said.
“I’m hoping other Shakespeare festivals pick this up, particularly the Hawaiian Shakespeare Festival,” he added.
Reiss has a short video on Youtube in which he talks about “Shakespeare’s Worst.” In it he makes a joke about a guy named Mervyn Payne, but Reiss explains viewers shouldn’t take that part seriously because Payne was actually a real person who attended Reiss’s alma mater Bristol Eastern High School.
“For the purposes of this joke I needed an English-sounding name. He barely knew me, I’m sure he will be very surprised to see me talking about him 40 years later,” he said.
Reiss also admits he personally is not fond of Shakespeare.
“I think obviously he was a great writer in his time, he’s great with words, he created timeless characters, but there’s a lot of it that’s just so boring and hard to follow,” he said. “People, including me, when they go to see Shakespeare, the highest compliment they could pay an actor is ‘he’s so good I could tell what was going on.’ To me that’s a really low bar.”
Still, Reiss notes it’s not like he’s ranking on “Hamlet.”
“‘Two Gentleman of Verona’ was Nick’s pick, and it was inspired,” he said. “It’s a bad play all the way through. It’s probably Shakespeare’s first play and you’ve literally never seen a play end as badly as Shakespeare ended this play. In fact the ending is so bad that in my play they go through it three times, just so my character can break it down and explain what happened and why.”
After years of writing for television and movies, Reiss has been concentrating on plays lately but comedy is always his forte. “It is absolutely all I’m good for in this world,” he said.
“Shakespeare’s Worst” is his third produced play.
His first one came about when he was giving a speech at the University of Connecticut and someone in the theater department suggested he write a play about Connecticut. The result was titled “I’m Connecticut,” which premiered at UConn and then moved to the Ivoryton Playhouse.
Reiss decided he liked playwriting. “It doesn’t pay anything but it’s really easy!”
His second play was “Comedy is Hard,” which was also produced at the Ivoryton Playhouse. His fourth, “I Hate Musicals: The Musical,” opens this September in Ivoryton.
“I’ve loved writing them. I have one more sitting in the docket, but I would really like to have a life for some of these plays outside of Ivoryton. I’d love to get as far as Old Saybrook or New London,” he joked.
“I have this secret hope that my old high school, Bristol Eastern, will do one,” he added. “If they should do one of my plays, I’ll come to see it.”
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.